Now that venues are back open but the virus is surging again, the question for local musicians is: Should I play out, or should I stay home?
The correct answer (“stay home”) might appear obvious, but factor in a disastrous response to the pandemic from the federal government, an unnecessarily long lockdown that’s destroying businesses, and a presidential election pitting scientists against all-knowing, all-seeing Facebook users, and there’s just enough room for doubt for some musicians to seize upon and do whatever the hell they want. It doesn’t matter what any of us think. People gonna people. Players gonna play.
Here’s what should have happened: The feds should have paid us to stay home and should have suspended all rents and mortgages for a couple of months. All of that lost income could have been made up for in July or August, when we could have reopened confidently instead of what we did: reopen some places seemingly arbitrarily and close some others actually arbitrarily. (Is being in the holy presence of a cheeseburger all we need to keep us safe from catching the ’rona while out on the town?) Some dude on Twitter summed it up nicely: “Anybody else almost miss the quarantine of March/April, where at least the rules were clear instead of this vague and bad time, where, like, half of your friends are shut indoors and the other half are recreating Woodstock at the local bar?”
Local Grammy winner Jordan Richardson (Son of Stan, Ben Harper) recently posed a sensible question that we shall all stop to ponder now: “I say this with all due respect to my siblings in the music and bar industry, but I have an issue with bands beginning to book shows at venues in Fort Worth/Dallas with the virus numbers going up back up again. Would anyone like to start a nice discussion about this below?”
Aside from an isolated flame war or two, most of the hundreds of comments were “nice” and insightful. User Andrew Maître Écureuil Mareschall agreed “1000%” with Richardson, saying, “Unless said venue cannot charge patrons for a livestream and subsequently social distance those patrons, it makes no sense. I think that that is the sole, responsible way to generate revenue for the venue and subsequent bands performing at a fixed rate or not at all. Small venue musicians are already at risk and at a disadvantage, and I’d purport that at whatever stipend, medium or small, it’s not worth one’s health and wellbeing to be playing shows until it is absolutely sensible.”
Local musician Justin Pate has experienced the paradox firsthand: “Played at Tolbert’s [in Grapevine] last Friday. The lack of masks was disgusting. We’re not ready.” In an immediate reply to himself, he added, “The money was nice, though.”
Existential questions surround the debate. “Also,” commented Lisa Adrienne, “there’s just the overall moral/ethical question of: If it’s an event meant to draw people (which is usually the intent when you hire a DJ or band), is that a good idea right now? Am I (as a DJ) helping encourage people to congregate when case numbers are going back up again? Am I, in essence, being a scab when most of my fellow DJs are staying home (and forsaking any pay) in order to keep everyone else safe?”
Richardson is “sad for everyone,” he wrote. “I’m mostly sort of upset about bands moving forward tbh with that attitude of ‘Damn, they’ll have us, so we’ll play’ with little consideration beyond ‘wanting to rock’ or some dumb shit like that. … Feels very ‘scabby,’ too.”
People still gonna people, though, and to arrive at any sort of answer, we need to deal with the reality as it is rather than as it should be. Extra precautions are the only way forward. A few comments that stuck with me involved a legal-y approach: Musicians will simply inform the venue owner beforehand that if safety protocols are not followed by staff and customers, the band will pull out and be paid for the pleasure. The only missing piece is the arbiter of what constitutes a lack of adherence to safety protocols. One man’s slipped mask may be another man’s attempted murder. Maybe one or two employees can serve as “COVID security” and do nothing but ensure safety protocols are followed — Fort Worth’s venues aren’t so big that two or three folks would not be able to handle the job. Or maybe it’s one employee and one FOTB (Friend of the Band), to ensure a bipartisan approach. If they end up coming to blows, then the benefit of the doubt goes to the band. They don’t necessarily have to play as much as they’re needed to play by the venues — again, because our federal government failed us at the onset, businesses remain crippled, and, for venues, the only way out of the morass is by hosting more shows and encouraging more people to gather. Hahaha. During a pandemic! Most musicians have day/night jobs. The venue’s employees don’t have anything else to fall back on. Making music themselves obviously doesn’t count.
As winter approaches and the bodycount continues to soar, our only hope is for new leadership at the federal level come January 2021 and a vaccine. Until then, you do you — as long as you’re 6 feet away from everyone else and wearing a damn mask. — Anthony Mariani
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